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26 June 2003 Edition

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A new kind of politics

In the final part of his series of articles exploring the republican vision, An Phoblacht's Paul O'Connor examines the relationship of republicanism to socialism

A few weeks ago, I was browsing the politics section in Waterstones when I overheard a conversation between two fellow-customers.

"Ever read this?" said the lad, picking The Communist Manifesto off a shelf.

"What is it?" asked his girlfriend.

"Karl Marx - his political theories. It shows you what a looper he was."

"Fairly crap, is it?"

"Well," he concluded, "Marx had his ideas - but they were all wrong."

Once, socialism inspired a mixture of fear and loathing in the ruling classes of Europe and America. Now, it bears the worse stigma of failure. Socialist and social-democratic parties have stampeded for the centre. In Britain, Labour has been transformed into a right wing, neo-liberal party. The only Tory clothing they haven't stolen is a red coat and riding pants.

Yet, as political parties lurch to the right, people are taking to the streets in numbers not seen for decades. At last week's European summit in Greece, over 25,000 demonstrators clashed with police. Massive protests have become a feature of almost every gathering of self-designated "world leaders". Such demonstrations point to the ability of anti-capitalist politics to mobilise increasingly large sections of public opinion.

Our goal should be a politics built around the idea of community, rather than the state; about empowerment rather than dependency. A true democracy, an Ireland of Equals, can only be built if we involve everyone on the island
Marx predicted capitalism would collapse from the weight of its own contradictions. While the market was good at creating wealth, it was bad at distributing it. The rich would keep on getting richer and richer, while the rest of the population were pushed deeper into poverty. Such a situation was bound to lead to revolution - which Marx thought imminent in his own time.

He failed to foresee that the growing strength of trade unions and socialist parties would provide a partial substitute for the principle of distribution the free market lacked. Organised labour and the welfare state switched just enough wealth from the owners of capital to workers to keep the system going. Marx also underestimated the power of new technology to produce wealth. Even when this wealth is unequally distributed, enough can find its way to the less well-off to keep discontent from developing into revolution.

But while trade unionism and the welfare state went some way towards tempering unrestricted capitalism, economic power remained largely in private hands. Meanwhile, the emergence of a global economy and the formation of huge multinational conglomerates altered the balance of power between business and the state. The consequence was the neo-liberal economics championed by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, with its agenda of wholesale privatisation, emasculation of trade unions, "flexibility" in labour markets (which means reducing workers' rights, making them easier to fire), and tax cuts for the better-off.

With weakened trade unions and less government regulation, many of the checks upon the market's tendency to enrich the wealthy at the expense of everyone else were removed. As a result, social inequality has widened. In the US, where market-orientated policies have been taken furthest, the real value of the minimum wage in the late 1990s was 27% less than it was in the late 1960s.

Meanwhile, other "contradictions" have emerged. There is the contradiction between a capitalist economy that needs to grow by 2-3% each year to avoid large-scale unemployment, and a planet with finite resources of land, fossil fuels, and clean water and air. And there is the contradiction between the economic power of giant corporations and democracy.

Does this mean the spectre of Marx is once again set to haunt Europe? No. But it does mean unrestricted, global capitalism will face a growing challenge. I believe the lurch to the right of the past decade will prove only half the story of the post-Cold War realignment of politics. The second half - only just beginning - will be the emergence of a new left-wing alternative.

Republicans can form part of that alternative. Indeed, we are its natural leaders in Ireland.

I agree wholeheartedly with Justin Moran (writing in this paper last week) that while we should welcome support from whatever source, it would be a mistake to change our policies in an effort to woo middle-class voters in the 26 Counties, well catered for by others. Fianna Fáil and Labour have turned their backs on their working class support and it is ripe for the taking. Continue and expand our success in attracting first time voters - the young and the disillusioned - and we will be building an ideological vote that will turn out for Sinn Féin again and again. Shift to the centre, and at best we will gain a floating protest vote likely to dissolve at the next election.

But I do not agree that the slogan "An Ireland of Equals" is less effective than a "32 county socialist republic", nor do I agree that we have no choice between adopting the rhetoric of old-fashioned socialism and becoming a party of anaemic social democrats.

Justly or not, socialism is widely regarded as an ideology that passed its sell-by date in the last century. Equality, justice, rights, empowerment - this is the vocabulary of radical politics in the 21st century. To adopt this vocabulary in place of that of class and socialism does not mean giving up on principles.

Can we have an Ireland of equals in which the wealthiest 10% earn more than the lowest 40% combined? Can we have democracy on this island without democratisation of industry and the credit system? But we cannot convince people to support our ideas if we speak to them in language that seems out of date and irrelevant.

A left turn needed, certainly. But we will sail to power on the revolutionary current of a new age, not that of the last century. We need to build a movement that will take the living soul of socialism - its passion for justice, its sense of the dignity and equal rights of every human being - and incorporate it in a programme, a rhetoric, a set of policies relevant to the third millennium.

Our goal should be a politics built around the idea of community, rather than the state; about empowerment rather than dependency. A true democracy, an Ireland of Equals, can only be built if we involve everyone on the island. Legislation and government intervention in the economy will undoubtedly be necessary; but their role should be to support, not substitute for, activism in the workplace and in the community. Socialist parties in the past failed because they allowed control of the economy to remain in the hands of a tiny minority. Even when they nationalised industries, control passed to bureaucrats, not to workers. A new, left wing politics must seek to distribute both political and economic power as widely as possible.

If republicans are to make such a politics a reality in Ireland, we need to take a long hard look at our current dependence on global transient capital and create a workable model of alternative development. We need to think what democratisation of the economy means, and develop the policies that can make it a reality. A revitalised trade unionism would play its part. So might worker directors, employee shareholdings, democratic instead of hierarchical organisation in industry, pro-active state support for co-operatives. But how would such policies work out in practice, and how would we go about implementing them?

We should examine the feasibility of a community credit scheme - a larger version of the credit unions - to provide an alternative to the banks and allow communities access funds for development schemes. Can we envisage representative local enterprise boards with the funds and government support to help localities create employment for themselves rather than depending on external investment? What role might a revitalised local democracy play in economic planning and development?

The limitations of the free market are coming into ever sharper focus, and from Venezuela to Seattle, people are looking for an alternative. But this 21st century hunger for change will not be poured into 20th century moulds. We need policies that honour socialist principles while addressing the pressing concerns and economic realities of a new age. If we provide them, we can provide leadership to all those - of whatever social background - who are sickened by the right-wing consensus, and become the decisive force shaping the future of this island.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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